Sunshine: friend or foe?

Posted on: 17 June 2014 by 50connect editorial

How do you get the health benefits of the sun (Vitamin D) without exposing your skin to damage? 50connect asked Dr Sarah Brewer's for her advice.

skincare in the sun

The vitamin D debate can be rather confusing – on one hand, if we stay out of the sun we are faced with the risk of vitamin D deficiency, but on the other, we run the risk of skin damage if we do bask in the sunshine. Dr Sarah Brewer explains how to juggle this problem…

There seems to be confusion around how much sun exposure is good for people. Some say you need a few hours a day to keep Vitamin D levels up and to release 'happy hormones' whereas others say exposure to sun is bad as it can lead to skin cancer and will be ageing for skin. What is the safe/recommended amount of sun exposure for a UK resident from May-September?

Vitamin D vs sun protection

Vitamin D is vital for absorption of calcium from the diet. It also plays important roles in immunity, mood regulation and heart health. We make vitamin D3 in our skin on exposure to sunlight when the UV index is greater than 3 which, in the UK, is only achieved during spring and summer. To balance adequate production of vitamin D against skin cancer risk, usual advice is to obtain 10 to 15 minutes sun exposure to face, arms, hands and/or back, two or three times a week, without sunscreen. Longer exposures do not provide additional benefit as vitamin D is rapidly broken down by excess UV radiation.

Used properly, a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of SPF15 reduces vitamin D production by 99% which suggests that vitamin D supplements are important all year round. The EU recommended daily amount (RDA) is 5 mcg (200iu), but many experts suggest that, in the absences of exposure to sunlight, an intake of 25mcg (1000iu) is more appropriate for optimum health. If taking supplements, select one containing the form known as vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) as this is significantly more effective in maintaining blood vitamin D levels than the vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) form.

The ‘sunshine vitamin’ as it’s known, is synthesised by our skin when exposed to sunlight and it is an important vitamin for many different aspects of health. “Lack of vitamin D, through poor diet or little sun exposure, reduces bone mineralisation,” explains GP and medical nutritionist, Dr Sarah Brewer. “Bone thinning (osteoporosis) in later life is also partly regulated by vitamin D levels. Recent research shows that vitamin D also stimulates the production of the building blocks of cartilage within joints, boosts immunity, and plays a role in both brain and circulatory health,” adds Dr Brewer

However, this benefit is somewhat outweighed by the damages that the sun’s rays can cause. UVA rays are responsible for a staggering 80% of ageing, presented as wrinkles and dark spots. While UVB rays are the ones which subject us to the pain and reddening that is sunburn. To top the list, both UVA and UVB exposure cause DNA damage to the skin, which increases the risk of cancerous melanoma.

The safer options

Unfortunately sun cream works by blocking the sun’s rays and thus inhibits the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D, but it is really worth risking? Having weighed the benefits against the risks of being exposed to sunlight, other methods of gaining vitamin D are much more favourable. There are two other options – diet and nutritional supplements. “Diet should always come first,” explains Robert Hobson, Head of Nutrition for Healthspan. “Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish, eggs, and fortified fat spreads and cereals.”

Leading expert Professor Adam Carey tells us “One in seven adults under 65 is thought to be vitamin D deficient, which rises to one in three over 65-year-olds”. This would suggest that due to the very specific food sources, many are failing to get enough of the vitamin. An easier solution to this need is taking a vitamin D supplement.

Sun cream choices

If you want to avoid having wrinkled or patchy skin then daily sun protection is a must. Look for options that are developed by doctors and dermatologists and provide light, high factor protection from both UVA and UVB rays to ensure you’re fully protected. You can also find options with added extras such as antioxidant vitamin E, soothing aloe vera and moisturising pro-vitamin B5, to help keep skin supple, protected and hydrated all day.

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